The World is Melting! Do Trails Even Matter?

When I talk to people in the community about what the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) does, their response is often something along the lines of “trails? I don’t do that.” But after talking for a few minutes, I almost always discover that they, in fact, walk their dog along a greenway that is part of the Thread Trail or take their kids to a riverside park we helped to fund with grant money as part of a project to establish blueways or paddling trails. These types of conversations have driven home for me the way in which we often interact with the built environment and use environmental resources unconsciously. This lack of attention to modes of habitual contact with the natural world can mean that many people don’t make the connection between their quality of life – their ability to spend time outside with their kids or grandkids or to walk safely to the store or a friend’s house – and the need to conserve the environment.

I have learned a lot in my first few months at the Thread Trail but one of the most important lessons has been the importance of identity in gaining community support for environmental conservation. The Thread Trail puts a name to the small trails and greenways across North and South Carolina – it allows the people who use those trails every day to connect to a larger regional identity. Establishing this connection with nature has been an integral part of the  mission of the Carolina Thread Trail since it was created out of the Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) in 2007. The Thread Trail still works closely with CLC and both organizations do important work in environmental protection. I think that the Thread Trail, however, is a uniquely important tool that provides something the Conservancy cannot. CLC protects large areas of land, providing critical wildlife habitat and sequestered areas of forest where native plants can flourish, but all that land, all the native flora and fauna, is not accessible to the public. CTT preserves smaller areas of land, often in unglamorous habitats on floodplains filled with scrubby bushes and briars, but every inch of that land is open to the public.

This type of community-focused environmental effort is what I believe will make the difference in rapidly developing areas like the Piedmont of the Carolinas. While monumental conservation projects like Yosemite or the Great Barrier Reef often serve as emblems of the environmental protection movement, they are not representative of daily modes of interaction with nature for most people. When I think back to the conception of my own interest in the environment, I remember weekend walks in local parks with my family and days spent exploring the scrubby woods in my neighborhood with friends. These outdoor spaces of my childhood are not glamorous by any means, they are the in-between spaces carved out around neighborhoods and stores and schools. Such spaces are not particularly significant individually, but if we can make it possible for every child to have access to open space in which to run and explore, however unspectacular that landscape is, we will likely have far more environmentalists in the coming decades to combat global climate change, biodiversity loss, and the plethora of other large-scale issues we face. The in-between spaces that sparked my interest in conservation are invisible to many but are transformed into places – into landscapes of wonder – to those who care to look closely and spend time in them regularly.

This transformation is what the Carolina Thread Trail facilitates. The Trail opens up these invisible spaces and invites people in – people, hopefully, like me, who will one day look up and realize that their little slice of nature, the small trail behind their house or their local park, is a piece of something so much bigger and so much more significant than just themselves.

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